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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Only- Begotten

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(μονογενής, יָחִיר)

1. Use of the phrase.-It occurs in a literal sense four times in the NT: in Luke 7:12 (the widow’s son at Nain), Luke 8:42 (Jairus’ daughter), Luke 9:38 (the child in the scene after the Transfiguration). Hebrews 11:17 (Isaac); not at all in the other Synoptists. As referring to our Lord, it is Johannine only; and outside the Fourth Gospel it is found once only-in 1 John 4:9. It is used of Christ absolutely, ‘the Only-begotten,’ in John 1:14; and with ‘Son of God’ or ‘his Son’ in John 3:16; John 3:18, 1 John 4:9. The reading in John 1:18 is disputed; the best-attested reading is μονογενὴς θεός (without the article), ‘God only begotten’ (אBCL Pesh. Boh. aeth., etc.); but AX with Old Lat., Vulg. [Note: Vulgate.] , Syr-cu, Arm., secondary uncials and almost all cursives, have ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός, ‘the only begotten Son.’ The Diatessaron seems to have got out of the difficulty by reading ‘the Only-begotten’ simply; Syr-sin is wanting here, but Burkitt (Evang. da-Meph., 1904, ii. 307 f.) thinks that it had μονογενὴς θεός, and that the unrevised Syr-cu had ‘the Only-begotten’ as the Diatessaron. This is to some extent confirmed by the Ignatian interpolator (Philipp. 2 [late 4th cent.]), who also reads ‘the Only-begotten’ (Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers: ‘Ignatius’ 2, iii. [1889] 190; see also i. 254). The Fathers are divided; the old Roman Creed (as given by Swete, Apostles’ Creed, p. 16) has ‘unicum filium,’ which evidently presupposes the second reading (the derived ‘Apostles’ Creed’ has ‘filium eius unicum dominum nostrum’; see below).

Another Greek rendering of יָחִיד, is ἀγαπητός, and this is found in the Septuagint of Genesis 22:2, whence the same word has found its way into 2 Peter 1:17 and into Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7 (‘my beloved Son’); in Luke 9:35 the best Manuscripts have ἐκλελεγμένος, ‘chosen.’ But the Septuagint has μονογενής in Judges 11:34 (Jephthah’s daughter) and Tobit 3:15 (Sarah, daughter of Raguel), and Aquila seems to have used it in Genesis 22:2 (Hort, Two Dissertations, p. 49). The Latin renderings are unicus and unigenitus; the former seems to be the older of the two (Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. 281).

2. Meaning as applied to our Lord.-It appears to the present writer to be clear that in Jn. μονογενής refers to the pre-existent Sonship of our Lord: ‘God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world’ (1 John 4:9). Our Lord is Son in a unique sense; we by adoption, He by nature (see Adoption). ‘The Divine essence was so peculiarly communicated to the Word that there never was any other person naturally begotten of the Father, and in that respect Christ is the only begotten Son of God’ (Pearson; cf. Cyril of Jerusalem, Cat. x. 4: ‘He is called Son, not as advanced by adoption, but as naturally begotten’). The emphasis on the first part of the word is the same as that on ἑαυτοῦ and ἰδίου in Romans 8:3; Romans 8:32 (‘God sending his own Son … spared not his own Son’); in these phrases St. Paul has an equivalent to μονογενής.

The above is the universal interpretation of the title by the Fathers from at least the time of Nicaea onwards, though other views were held in certain heretical circles. But was it the earliest interpretation? It is certainly the fact that μονογενής was not much used by the writers of the first three quarters of the 2nd cent., as far as we can judge by their very scanty remains; but Justin uses it occasionally (e.g. Dial. 105: ‘He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power by Him, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin’), and it is found in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (20). The Valentinians in the 2nd cent. used it for their aeon Nous; they certainly treated the Only-begotten of Jn. as a pre-existent Being, but they took the particle ‘as’ (ὡς) in John 1:14 as excluding the complete identification with Jesus (see Swete, op. cit. p. 26). The title took its place (probably c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 150) in the old Roman Creed-in the Greek form of the Creed as μονογενής, in the Latin form as unicus-perhaps as a protest against the misuse of it by the Valentinians. In some Western forms of the Creed, however, it is absent. F. Kattenbusch (Das apost. Symbol, 1894-1900, and Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. 281) holds that ‘unicum’ was originally meant to go with ‘Dominum,’ but in view of the Johannine use this seems improbable. Later in the 2nd cent. μονογενής is constantly used by Irenaeus.

Harnack asserts (Das apostol. Glaubensbekenntniss, ed. 1892) that in the Roman Creed the title refers only to the Incarnate Life, not to the Pre-existent Sonship. This is certainly not the case with Justin (see above); and Aristides affirms the pre-existence of the Son of God (‘He is named the Son of God most High; and it is said that God came down from heaven, and … clad Himself with flesh, and in a daughter of man there dwelt the Son of God,’ Apol. 2, ed. Harris [Texts and Studies i. 1 (1891) 36]). The earlier Fathers taught that before the Incarnation our Lord was Son of God (e.g. Ignatius, Magn. 6, 7; Smyrn. 1), and did not, like some contemporary heretics, limit the Sonship to the human life. But they did not at first adopt the technical word ‘generation’ for the communication of the Divine essence to the Son. Here we have an excellent example of the change in the use of technical theological words, of which hypostasis furnishes another and a later example. Ignatius says (Eph. 7) that our Lord was ‘generate and ingenerate’ (γεννητὸς καὶ ἀγέννητος)-generate, that is, in His humanity, and ingenerate in His Divinity; ‘generation’ as used by Ignatius has an earthly sense, whereas by the time of Justin and Tatian it had acquired a heavenly one (cf. Swete, p. 28). What Ignatius means is that our Lord’s humanity is created, His Divinity is uncreated; and, as Lightfoot shows (excursus in Apostolic Fathers: ‘Ignatius’2, ii. [1889] 90 ff.), he substantially held the same views as the Nicene Fathers as to the Person of Christ. In the later writers Christ is said to be ἀγένητος in His Godhead-there never was a time before He came into existence; but He was not ἀγέννητος. In His Godhead he was γεννητός, ‘begotten’; the Father alone was ἀγέννητος, ‘unbegotten.’ But this distinction was unknown to Ignatius. It is also an example of the fluid state of theological terminology that some 2nd cent. writers speak of the pre-existent Christ as Spirit (pseudo-Clement, 2 Corinthians 9 : ‘Christ … being first Spirit, then became flesh’; cf. Hermas, Sim. v. 6, ix. 1, and Lightfoot’s note in Apostolic Fathers: ‘Clement,’ ii. [1890] 230); and that even in the 3rd cent. Hippolytus speaks of the Incarnation being necessary for the perfect Sonship of our Lord, although, when unincarnate, being perfect Word, he was Only-begotten (c. Noet. 15).

Other interpretations of ‘Only-begotten’ make it equivalent to ‘begotten by one alone,’ as Eunomius asserted (Basil, c. Eunom. ii. 20: μόνος παρὰ μόνουγεννηθείς), or to ἀγαπητός, ‘beloved,’ as is affirmed by the Racovian Catechism (Socinian).

The word μονογενής is found in the Nicene and ‘Constantinopolitan’ Creeds, in the early Creed of Jerusalem (gathered out of Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures), in the Creed of Marcellus (Epiphanius, Haer. lxxii. 3), in Apost. Const. vii. 41, and apparently in all Greek forms of the Apostles’ Creed.

See also article First-Born, First-Begotten.

Literature.-B. F. Westcott, The Gospel acc. to St. John, 1908, The Epistles of St. John, 1883; J. Pearson, On the Creed, new ed., 1899, article ii., esp. notes 52, 53; H. B. Swete, The Apostles’ Creed3, 1899; F. J. A. Hort, Two Dissertations, 1876; F. Kattenbusch, article ‘Only-begotten’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels ii. (takes a different view from that of this article); W. Sanday, article ‘Son of God’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) iv.

A. J. Maclean.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Only- Begotten'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/o/only--begotten.html. 1906-1918.

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